Egypt’s khayamiya handicraft legacy surviving against all odds

The word “khayamiya” is derived from the Arabic word “khyma,” meaning a tent. Khayamiya craftsmen in the past were tentmakers when people lived in tents.
Sunday 10/11/2019
A view from the entrance of Khayamiya Street leading up to Bab Zuweila, one of the surviving main gates of Cairo’s Old City.                                        (AFP)
From fathers to sons. A view from the entrance of Khayamiya Street leading up to Bab Zuweila, one of the surviving main gates of Cairo’s Old City. (AFP)

CAIRO - Hani Abdel-Kader was sitting cross-legged with his back straight on a small wooden sofa, holding a big needle and scissors, quickly and skilfully sewing and trimming a colourful piece of khayamiya panel.

A radio playing a song by legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum in the background added to the traditional ambience and the work done in the shop.

The walls of Abdel-Kader’s shop are covered with highly artistic shapes and sizes of handmade khayamiya panels and appliqued fabrics. It is one of about 30 small stores on Khayamiya Street next to Bab Zuwaila in the heart of Fatimid Cairo, which dates to 1200AD.

The khayamiya craft is passed from fathers to sons. Abdel-Kader, 43, has been working in the profession, which he inherited from his grandfather, for 33 years. He is among the few artisans still dedicated to the traditional craft. For him, every day is another day of work that could yield profit or not but always involves creating works of art.

“Working as a khayami [a khayamiya craftsman] is not easy. One must have strong nerves and be focused. It requires dedication, patience and concentration and the way we sit while we work protects the spine from any damage,” Abdel-Kader explained.

He said the craft is falling into oblivion.

“When I say anywhere in Egypt that I work as a khayami, nobody understands what I’m talking about. They think that I only make tents for funerals and weddings,” he said sadly.

The word “khayamiya” is derived from the Arabic word “khyma,” meaning a tent. Khayamiya craftsmen in the past were tentmakers when people lived in tents or used suradiq (a tented pavilion) erected on streets to host weddings, funerals or other occasions. Now the profession has changed and developed into producing decor items.

Khayamiya as an industry dates to the Fatimid times when Egypt was famous for its textiles.

“At that time, khayamiya was a flourishing business and craftsmen gathered on a street of their own,” said Egyptian journalist Hossam Eddin Zidan, co-founder of the Mowathiqoun initiative.

“Because of terrorist attacks that targeted tourists in Egypt in the past few years, tourism suffered tremendously, which had a big toll on khayamiya craftsmen whose products are appreciated by visitors.”

Abdel-Kader said he took part in fairs in the United States, England, France and Australia, where the unique art is highly appreciated. “Foreigners, in general, value our art much more than Egyptians, who may think it’s overrated,” he said.

To make a khayamiya applique, a design is drawn on paper, which is folded horizontally, vertically and diagonally. The paper is pricked with holes over the design, filled with charcoal or white chalk and placed on a piece of cloth to have the design printed on it.

The dots of the pattern are connected with a pencil and the background fabric is tacked on heavy cotton canvas. The craftsman trims the shapes as he stitches them in an amazingly fast movement of the needle.

Prices of khayamiya pieces depend on the size and intricacy of the design and range from $4.50 to $235.

“A piece may take from one day up to three months of work. Usually, Islamic designs are the hardest and take longer time to make,” Abdel-Kader said.

A khayami is an artist by nature who can draw beautifully.

“Most of the designs I make myself,” Abdel-Kader said. “Sometimes I do what the customer asks for but, in general, we get inspired by the old masters of the profession. I choose the colours based on the design and the fabric used is usually heavy Egyptian cotton.”

Another challenge facing the khayamiya industry is the dramatic increase in the price of materials because of inflation.

“This, in turn, led to the price hikes of khayamiya works. Egyptians are turning away from handmade works, preferring cheap printed khayamiya cloth instead. What we really lack is good marketing for the industry to thrive,” Abdel-Kader said.

“In the past, every Egyptian household had a piece of khayamiya art. It is a national treasure and heritage which, alas, nobody understands now but we are surviving in one way or another against all the odds.”

Hany Abdel-Kader sews a piece of a khayamiya panel.
Hany Abdel-Kader sews a piece of a khayamiya panel.
An Egyptian man looks at wall hangings at a shop in Cairo’s  Khayamiya Street.         (AFP)
An Egyptian man looks at wall hangings at a shop in Cairo’s Khayamiya Street. (AFP)
An Egyptian craftsman showcases a tapestry in his shop in Khayamiya Street in Cairo’s Old City.                                                 (AFP)
An Egyptian craftsman showcases a tapestry in his shop in Khayamiya Street in Cairo’s Old City. (AFP)
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